The only constant is change – now what to do?

Everybody can see the signs

One more day in the weekend, then work starts again. The weather is changing, they’re calling for snow next weekend. It appears we are well on our way to winter.

It’s been mild the last few days, with temps in the 60s. I was under the weather yesterday and laid low, so I didn’t even realize until about 2:30 p.m. that the weather outside was beautiful. I did get some good rest, and I was feeling a lot better in the afternoon than I was when I first woke up. But it was disappointing to realize I’d missed out on some fantastic weather — not to mention the chance to rake my front yard.

Last weekend I raked the back yard, planning to rake the front one yesterday. Health-wise it wasn’t happening. Today it may not happen, either because they’re calling for rain. But I’ll try my luck in a little bit – suit up in my “grubbies”, grab my rake and tarp, and head out to take a shot at the blanket of fallen leaves on my front lawn.

Seasonal shifts always bring home to me the unavoidable reality of change. Economic changes, political changes, family changes, job changes… Change is the one constant in all our lives, and how well we adapt to it, how well we learn our lessons, how well we integrate what we learn into our overall world view, makes a huge difference in our quality of life. Staying rigid and inflexible may feel like we’re staying strong and standing our ground, but ultimately that brittleness can cause us to break — or at least slightly fracture in countless little ways that collectively add up to a kind of structural instability in our life.

And that takes a toll. We may not see it, we may not realize it, we may not even believe it’s there, but the countless little ways we’re resisting change to our own detriment will eventually show up in our larger lives. And they’ll show up in the group dynamics of our families, our social circles, and especially our workplace. We may be so busy “just holding it together” that we don’t see how our brittleness has affected us, but others might see it, plain as day.

Change is hard. No doubt about it. And change at the organizational level in the workplace is one of the toughest — and also most underrated — sources of existential stress you can find. Divorce and death and changing residences are all challenging, even taxing. But job changes can take a toll, too, especially when your career, title and position are defining factors in your life.

Remove a person from a role they have known for years, which is part of their personality, part of their identity, and which has provided them with a sense of structure and belonging for some time, and you threaten significant aspects of their very existence. To someone in HR, it may be “a simple title change”, but to each individual, that change means something different. It might be not such a big deal, or it might be a huge deal. It’s impossible to say, from person to person. But it does matter.

It matters a lot.

And transition a person from an organization where they have found community and social support, placing them in the midst of colleagues who are technically “on the same team” but are part of a different subculture within the enterprise, and you have another source of existential threat — both perceived and real. Like it or not, Americans identify with their jobs, their roles, their companies, in a very tribal manner. We don’t just work to live or live to work. We live through our work, and our professional circles are very much a part of our vital social and personal support networks. Our jobs are not just our jobs. They are the community we choose to join each day, five days a week, during the  most productive and valuable hours of our day. They are a big part of who we are and where we fit in the world.

To some, this might seem odd. In a society which values personal expression and liberty above group activities, tying your identity to your position at work might seem precarious, even foolhardy. In other societies, where being a “salary man” is central to someone’s identity and world view, this job-centric outlook might seem logical, even mandatory. Whatever the comparisons to other cultures and other social dynamics, the fact of the matter is, Americans are all about their work.

Just try messing with their organizational dynamics and watch what anxiety and chaos unfolds — for the short- and possibly the long-term.

To someone without an understanding of what re-orgs mean to everyday boots-on-the-ground American workers,  the anxiety and chaos could be quite baffling. And to someone without an appreciation of the importance of our professional sense of belonging and tribal connections, workforce resistance to change might seem counter-intuitive. But when you consider American workers as people first — and resources last — and you accept that human aspects of the workplace are important and central to professional performance, it puts organizational change in a whole different light.

The thing is, despite the clear evidence that human resources are in fact human, leaders of change can sometimes exhibit a massive disconnect between their actions, the impact on individuals, and overall company performance. Leaders can point the way like a veritable drill sergeant, saying “Life is tough. Suck it up.” Or they may carefully craft a positive pep talk and try to ignite the passion of their organization behind a vision and long-term goal. If they do acknowledge the negative impact that their changes are having on morale and performance, they may bargain/negotiate with a skeptical audience, saying, “Look, we know you’re having some difficulty with this, and we are too. But the sooner we all come to terms with it, the better off we’ll be.” Ultimately, if all these approaches fail, leaders may turn to criticism and threats, lambasting staff for under-performing, or freezing salaries and bonuses, metaphorically turning down the heat in a cold house because money is tight and people haven’t been economical with the thermostat before, so they should not be rewarded with heat now.

The result? Nobody’s very happy, and problems with adjustment persist.

Ironically, I’ve seen this happen time and time again. I’ve lost count of the re-orgs I’ve been through in the past 20+ years, but the patterns of response at the top and the bottom have been similar, even typical. I’ve seen some organizations bounce back and return to some semblance of productivity, but rarely have things been as efficient and as effective as before. I often hear it said that things are “neither better nor worse, they’re just different”. But that’s not entirely true. Things are not really better. In fact, they’re often worse. But as long as attrition is kept to a sustainable level, and the company isn’t hemorrhaging cash, folks can live with it — at least until higher-ups are promoted to a different position that relieves them of the discomfort of watching what happens after…

On the other hand, an organization that’s going through changes can become resilient and actually grow from the challenge. The study of personal and organizational resiliency is up-and-coming, and it makes for refreshing reading. No longer are the subjects of a traumatic situation assumed to be hapless victims who will forever labor under the scars of their experiences Now, it’s being recognized, there are individuals who manage to come to terms with what happened, learn valuable lessons, make the lessons part of their overall world view, and continue on, stronger than before.

This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of organizations which instigate sweeping changes — to bring about positive change. In many cases, something must be done, because things can’t continue on the way they are. The hope is that the long-term results will prove better than past performance. I’ve seen that a lot. But putting a framework and a structure in place to make that possible and give that development a fighting chance? That’s something I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in all my years in the workforce.

It’s a little surprising to me that there isn’t more science applied to change management, all across the board. I would think it would be a given, in the face of any impending organizational change. It’s not like business leaders decide to transform on a whim. These things are often years in the making, which leaves plenty of time to map out a workforce adoption and transition plan.

It’s not that we don’t know how people work — and how they work best. It’s not like we don’t know about the causes and effects of organizational trauma, and the existential threats to the workforce. We do know about these things. There are many, many experts in these areas. We have mountains of research about how change and stress affect human performance — physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally — and there are many people who specialize in maximizing performance of human beings on a regular basis. We have plenty of information and plenty of resources, and more is being learned and done each day to advance the field of change management. Plus, we have access to accomplished change management professionals who specialize in helping organizations plan, manage, and further their dynamic processes.

So, why is it that companies still insist on uprooting established systems and roles and professional paths, and think that everything will just work out in the end by itself? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s an educational issue — business leaders may not realize how impactful their decisions are. Perhaps they’re so far removed, and they’re in such a different “space,” that they actually cannot grasp the effect of their choices and actions. Perhaps they undervalue their own impact, or they undervalue the importance of a sense of belonging and connection that is the hallmark of the American workplace. Maybe they consider change to be an important part of toughening up a slacking workforce. Maybe they are so far removed from their own sense of vulnerability that to consider that of others is just too… close. Too personal.

Whatever the reason(s), the fact remains that change in the workplace continues to be a significant problem for many. And in some cases, it could even impact the bottom line. Whether or not leadership recognizes this and addresses the situation methodically — with science and forethought and pro-active planning of the entire change process, is anybody’s guess. And with myriad variations in awareness and budget and priority, coordinated responses to change can end up hit-or-miss.

Change is constant. It’s always imminent. We’re never going to escape it, and if we cannot embrace it, we’re in trouble — both individually and collectively.

But if we can accept it — and also plan and prepare to make the most of it… just think of the opportunity.


About Kay Lorraine

I'm a writer, poet, and artist... a technologist and a thinker, independently living my life.
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